Olympus PEN-F Review

February 24, 2016 | Mark Goldstein | |


The Olympus PEN-F is a stylishly retro compact system camera that harks back to the original PEN-F film camera from 1963. The all-metal PEN-F has a 5-axis image stabilisation system worth up to 5 stops, a new 20-Megapixel Live MOS Micro Four Thirds sensor with no low pass filter, Supersonic Wave Filter anti-dust technology, 4K time-lapse movie mode and the TruePic VII processing unit. The PEN-F also features an external flash hotshoe, built-in electronic viewfinder with a resolution of 2.36 million dots and 100% frame coverage, a vari-angle 3-inch LCD touchscreen, an electronic shutter with a top shutter speed of 1/16,000 sec, focus peaking, a new Creative dial, Live Composite Mode for previewing long exposures, a customisable self-timer, 10fps continuous shooting, 50-Megapixel high resolution shot capability, Wi-Fi connectivity and in-camera HDR exposure blending. The Olympus PEN-F is available in black or silver. The Olympus PEN-F body only costs £999.99 / $1199, the PEN-F and M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 14-42mm 1-3.5-5.6 EZ Pancake lens kit £1099.99, PEN-F and the M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 17mm 1:1.8 lens kit is £1199.99.

Ease of Use

The Olympus PEN-F is one of the most good-looking cameras that has ever graced the Photography Blog test bench, boasting a beautifully-realised retro design with not one screw-head in site. Importantly it also feels very robust and reassuringly solid in-hand thanks to its magnesium-alloy body. With dimensions of 124.8 x 72.1 x 37.3mm, it's similar in size to the Olympus E-M10 Mark II camera, and weighs almost the same too at 373g body-only.

Unlike the more expensive OM-D camera range, the new PEN-F isn't weather-sealed, a concession to its lower price-point. There's no actual hand-grip on the front of the camera, just a textured leatherette finish which is sufficient enough to be able to still hold the camera nice and steady when shooting handheld, ably assisted by a much more pronounced thumb-grip on the rear.

Low light sensitivity stretches all the way from ISO 80 up to a pro-like ISO 25600, partly down to the implementation of the noise reducing TruePic VII processor, which is also used by the flagship E-M1 model. Unsurprisingly the PEN-F retains the Olympus unique selling point of on-board Art Filters, which can be applied to Full HD video as well as stills. These filters are now more easily accessed via the new Creative dial on the front of the camera, which also offers the new Mono, Color and CRT (Creative Color) options.

These four options form the creative heart of the PEN-F, offering very easy and precise control over the look and feel of JPEG images (if selected, the Raw file doesn't have the filter effects applied to it, so you get the best of both worlds). We particularly enjoyed using the Mono option, which works just like having a bag full of filters at your disposal, but is considerably more convenient to use and lighter to carry.

Most image stabilization systems compensate for camera shake by correcting yaw and pitch. Olympus's image stabilization mechanism additionally corrects for horizontal shift, vertical shift and rotary motion (rolling) for both still images and movies. The PEN-F now offers 5-stops of compensation complete with auto panning detection.

From the front the PEN-F has a pleasingly streamlined look, with just a round lens release button to the right of the lens mount, an AF assist lamp above that, with the aforementioned Creative dial and a customisable Function button on the left.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 II
Front of the Olympus PEN-F

There are no less than 28 different Art Filters in total. The Art Filter digital effects are applied at the time of capture which means write speeds are inevitably a couple of seconds longer than for regular images. When shooting using certain filters, such as Diorama or Dramatic Tone, the screen's refresh rate slows, providing a real time preview of how the eventual image may look.

On top is a vacant flash hotshoe that sits directly above the lens, with the On / Off switch on the left hand-side when viewed from the rear. On the right of the flash hotshoe is a prominently raised shooting mode dial with a surrounding ridged edge for easier purchase and a lock button in the centre, with the options being program, aperture priority, shutter priority, manual, four custom modes, video, and the iAuto mode. Cleverly located underneath the shooting mode dial is small lever that's used for making changes in the different creative modes.

Further to the right is the tactile shutter release button with a handy traditional screw-in cable release thread, with the Olympus PEN-F readying itself for action in a second or so. Squeeze down halfway on the shutter release and the PEN-F very nearly instantaneously responds thanks to the FAST (Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology) system, the screen almost imperceptibly blurring before snapping back into focus, with the AF point flashing up in green with an accompanying bleep of confirmation. The PEN-F certainly delivers in terms of focusing speed and perhaps more importantly accuracy too, with very few false positives.

The PEN-F has a fully electronic shutter, which in addition expanding the top shutter speed to 1/16,000 sec, also allows for completely silent shooting and a clever anti-shock mode. This latter mode, which uses an electronic first-curtain shutter, helps to combat shutter shock, which can occur on the PEN-F when using the mechanical shutter at speeds between 1/60-1/200th second. Using either the anti-shock mode or the fully electronic shutter will avoid this unwanted effect.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 II
Tilting LCD Screen

Take the shot and when shooting RAW and SuperFine (top quality) JPEG in tandem there's a wait of an acceptable two seconds before the shot is fully committed to the memory card. Buffer memory is such however that you don't have to wait too long to squeeze off another shot if the opportunity presents itself (up to 16 Raw files). Action photographers will appreciate the fast burst rate of 10fps, although that's only achieved by locking the focus point at the first frame of the sequence - the PEN-F performs at a slightly more modest maximum speed of 5fps when continuously auto-focusing.

The number of selectable contrast AF points is 81 in a 9x9 grid. Low-light auto focus continues to be excellent – the system managed to focus down to -2EV (as long as there was something to focus on) even without the use of the focus assist lamp. This is seriously low light, about the same as a landscape lit only by moonlight and nothing else. It doesn't include the 37 on-sensor phase-detection auto focus points that the flagship E-M1 camera offers, though.

The shutter release is encircled by the first of two command dials. This one by default allows you to change the shutter speed or exposure compensation when using one of the more creative shooting modes, while the smaller second one that's positioned under your right thumb principally adjusts the aperture. It's a neat system that make using the manual mode in particular a lot simpler than on most rival cameras.

Alongside the exposure compensation dial (+-3EV) and completing the EM-10 II's top-plate is a small raised red video record button. Press this to record, or stop recording, no matter which shooting mode is otherwise selected on the top dial.

The Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II can record Full HD movies at a variety of frame rates (60p, 50p, 30p, 25p, 24p). The PEN-F can use its excellent 5-axis sensor-shift image stabiliser when shooting movies, which translates into smooth hand-held footage, even when using longer telephoto lens. Manual exposure can be enabled for videos, although you do have to rotate the mode dial to the Movie position to take advantage of this. (You can start filming in practically any other shooting mode too, but in that case, videos will always be recorded with auto exposure.) Audio is recorded in stereo PCM and uncompressed HDMI output is also possible, as is support for timecode. Shooting modes include Aperture priority, Art Filter, Manual, Program and Shutter priority, while one-shot echo and multiecho effects can be added to movies. New to the PEN-F is the ability to create 4K time lapse movies in-camera, although frustratingly playback is limited to just 5fps, and you can also capture high-speed VGA footage at 120fps.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 II
Rear of the Olympus PEN-F

Moving to the backplate of the PEN-F, the electronic viewfinder is automatically activated via the built-in eye sensor which optionally switches between the electronic viewfinder and EVF automatically, with a button for the dioptric adjustment on the right. Alongside is the user attributable 'Fn2' function button, which adjusts the gradation curve by default.

The EVF offers an impressively detailed 2.36 million dot unit with 100% field of view and 1.23x magnification. The PEN-F actually has two independent image-processing cores, one for the recorded images and the other for Live View images, so the live and recorded image appears very quickly on both the EVF and the rear screen. The Live Bulb feature cleverly updates the image on the rear screen at pre-set intervals during bulb shooting, giving you a live preview of the exposure, while the Live Composite Mode allows you to see a preview of long-exposure shots as they're being captured. The PEN-F also inherits the Super OVF mode, which as the name suggests simulates an optical finder, offering an "unprocessed" view of the scene in front of you.

The EVF helpfully displays key shooting information along the bottom of the viewfinder. Another boon to productivity is the ability to preview manual and creative adjustments live through the EVF without having to lower the camera to look at the rear screen. The EVF also benefits from the addition of Adaptive Brightness Control, which contributes to an improved viewing experience, and it also “gains up” in low light, making it arguably more usable than an optical finder.

The PEN-F is the latest Olympus compact system camera to feature capacitive touchscreen operation, although if you're not a fan you can for the most part get away without using it much at all, as there are a plethora of physical buttons which are either dedicated to specific functions or can be customized to suit. Indeed, the touch-sensitive interface hasn't led to a cleaner or more pared-down minimalist look.

The 3-inch 4:3 aspect ratio LCD screen has a resolution of 1.037million dots. Images look particularly vivid with plenty of contrast when viewed on the PEN-F's screen and happily this carries over when photos are downloaded to your desktop. The vari-angle design allows the screen to be tilted through 270°,and you can also fully articulate the screen from left to right as well which always proves useful when shooting video.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 II
Top of the Olympus PEN-F

Dragging a finger, and so the AF point, around the screen is a quick and easy way of following the subject, though inadvertently subsequently tapping it will cause the shutter to fire. This facility can be deactivated by prodding the relevant shutter button icon on the touch screen, but it's just as easy to accidentally turn it on again; even via an action as incongruous as the button of your shirt connecting with the screen as you're wearing the PEN-F on a neck strap, or the thumb of your left hand straying as you handle the camera. New to the PEN-F is the AF targeting pad feature, which allows you to move the focus point around the touchscreen using a finger whilst holding the camera up to your eye, which is very similar to Panasonic's Touchpad AF feature. There are no less than 800 AF points to choose from.

Olympus' Live Guide has once again been implemented on the PEN-F. This lets users try out picture adjustments with the aid of an onscreen slider bar to adjust the likes of depth of field and see the results in real time before pressing the shutter release button with accessibility extended beyond iAuto mode. The Live Guide options are presented as a colourful toolbar on the left hand side of the screen.

From the top we have the ability to change colour saturation, from 'clear & vivid' to 'flat & muted', next down is the ability to alter 'colour image', which translates as shifting the tone between warm and cool via slider bar, with the third option shifting brightness/exposure between a simple bright and dark. The fourth option down is probably the most interesting/effective in that it provides the ability to incrementally blur the background of your shot by again dragging an indicator on a slider - thus providing a similar shallow depth of field effect to that achievable with a DSLR and suitable aperture.

For its latest Live Guide option Olympus has retained the curiously named 'Express Motions'. There's the option to both blur any movement or stop it in its tracks, again achievable by dragging a slider indicator. The last option on this tool bar is an on-board shooting hints and tips manual, with the usual 'suspects' of photographing children and pets given the most prominence ('take a picture at their height level' being a summation of the level of advice imparted). We even get tips, as a bit of closet advertising, for attaching Olympus accessories, such as lens converters.

Embedded in the top of the rear thumb-grip is the customisable Function 1 button. Just below this are the self-explanatory Magnification, Menu and Info buttons, the latter toggling through various LCD views. Underneath again is a 4-way navigation controller with a central OK button - pressing this accesses the PEN-F's quick menu system, a handy onscreen vertical list of icons that provide quick access to most of the camera's main settings. In conjunction with the camera's plethora of external controls and its customisable buttons, this makes the PEN-F a pleasure to use. The final controls on the rear are the Delete and Playback buttons.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 II
The Olympus PEN-F in-hand

The Wi-fi implementation on the PEN-F is actually quite good. You first need to download a free app for your smartphone (Android and iOS versions are both available), but after that, everything is pretty straightforward. You simply touch the Wi-Fi icon on your camera's display to set up a connection. The Olympus PEN-F will provide you with an SSID and password, but you do not need to type in either of them – just launch the app on your phone and scan the QR code displayed by your camera with your phone. This is nearly as fast as using NFC (Near-Field Communication), a feature that the PEN-F doesn't offer. Once the connection is established, you can download images from the camera to your smartphone, or use the latter to remotely control the PEN-F. You can choose from a variety of shooting modes, set aperture, sensitivity, shutter speed and white balance, choose a drive mode, and focus on practically any part of the frame, all remotely.

The Olympus PEN-F has a time-lapse photography mode, which allows you to capture up to 999 frames at user-specified intervals. You can also tell the camera when to start the sequence, which comes in handy if you want to set up the camera well in advance. The PEN-F will save each shot in the format of your choice – ORF or JPEG – and can optionally create a time-lapse video in-camera, which you can play back on the rear screen, or upload to a website like Vimeo or YouTube. While shooting raw and creating a video afterwards on your PC gives you more control over grading, sharpening etc., the in-camera option is nice to have when shooting JPEG or raw+JPEG, as it is obviously much faster.

Focus bracketing is a great feature on the PEN-F, and one that the more expensive E-M5 II and E-M1 cameras don't currently offer. This lets you set the focus point and then automatically take up to 99 shots with focus adjustments around it, thereby greatly extending what is in focus. Unfortunately the PEN-F doesn't combine the shots either in-camera or in the supplied Olympus software, so you'll need to use Photoshop or a specialized software program like Helicon Focus to combine all of the shots into one image.

The menu system is similar to that of the professional OM-D E-M1. This is a complex, multi-level menu system that might not seem intuitive at first sight, especially to beginners, so reading the manual is a good idea before starting to explore it. The good news is that these menus are mainly there to allow you to set up the camera exactly the way you want it to be set up – once you're done with that, you'll seldom need to delve into the menus again, courtesy of the large number of external controls as well as the excellent Super Control Panel, which is basically an interactive status display inherited from older Olympus cameras.

Chunky lugs for attaching the supplied shoulder strap hang at either side of the camera, thankfully out of the way of fingers and controls. On the right hand flank, if viewing the camera from the back, we find a pair of covered ports for joint USB/AV output and mini HDMI output respectively. On the bottom of the PEN-F is a screw thread for attaching a tripod in-line with the lens mount, with the lockable shared battery/memory card compartment alongside. The BLN-5 rechargeable lithium-ion battery supplied with the PEN-F is good for around 330 shots or 80 minutes of video footage. There is the option to use all varieties of SD media card, up to and including SDXC cards.

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